A Wolf by the Ears

Read an excerpt from A Wolf by the Ears

The Thing Speaks for Itself“Like old times,” Roger Stratis said.

“Which old times?” Gracie stepped out of her truck and flipped the collar up on her canvas jacket. Cold droplets of spring rain wormed their way into the warm, dry reaches of the t-shirt underneath. “Are you talking about when you first showed up as an imaginary friend? Or years ago, before you died?” She turned her head to regard the ghost of her father standing by her truck. Tendrils of smoke waved around him and dissipated in the rain. His suit was dry and dusty. His grimy, flat-brimmed Stetson pushed back on his head. The phantom of a man before her was much younger than the father she had known. “Or are you going back further?” She stepped around the truck and hopped onto the sidewalk. Chris Graff walked through the rain about fifty feet ahead. Gracie adjusted the Bluetooth earpiece in her ear and fell in behind him. Modern technology made it easier for the insane to blend in. Thank goodness for that.

Her father strode to her left. He stepped around a small tree that rose from a square of dirt in the sidewalk. “There are a lot of old times. What’s that phrase I used to use?”

Gracie shrugged. Her eyes didn’t waver from Graff’s back. She slowed her pace. “I don’t remember. Let go or get dragged?” She had followed Graff from CellDrive to this crumbling neighborhood in the flats. Rundown Victorian and Craftsman homes lined the streets. Plenty of rotting, exposed wood and rusting chain link. She had followed Graff for three days. He hadn’t come here before.

Her father was right. This was familiar. Following CellDrive employees down Oakland streets less traveled. Except the leads and the obstacles were all different. The man who orchestrated her friend Noah’s murder had drowned. At that very moment, Marx whiled away his plea deal in some prison. And Barnes. He should have tackled Gracie heads up. Practice what you preach.  

“Your mother said that. Not me.” Her father rubbed his forehead in concentration. “You don’t remember. That’s why I don’t remember.” He removed his hat and fanned his face. To him, those raindrops were the fiction. He looked like he had just stepped away from one his digs in the desert. “Oh yeah, I used to say ‘scooped up from time antediluvian.’ I suppose that’s what I am, a man out of his time.”

“No, you’re not a man,” she said. The world shrunk and settled into only the conversation and Graff’s back. His sloping shoulders bobbed under a gray raincoat. His head turned toward the sidewalk below him, brown hair wet and plastered down.

“Excuse me, Miss?” A woman’s voice broke the rhythm of things. Gracie spun to find a man and a woman about ten feet behind her. The woman was about Gracie’s age, somewhere just over thirty. The man probably had a decade on her. She was pretty, and he was … not so much. Each had long gray nylon ponchos with dark pants poking out the bottom. They looked silly, but the outfit did make sense if you wanted to pull out a handgun faster than someone with a jacket. The weight of her revolver pressed against Gracie’s hip; under her jacket.

An easy smile spread across the woman’s face. Pretty and friendly. “Are you lost?” she said. The woman was tall, but still a few inches shorter than Gracie. “That isn’t the way.” The woman nodded down the sidewalk at Graff’s back. Gracie resisted the urge to look behind her. She was going to lose Graff.

“I am so lost. But my shrink says that sometimes losing yourself is the surest way to finding yourself. Of course, that’s bullshit.” Gracie smiled back at the woman. “Do I know you?”

“I’m Red.” Her red hair hung limply in the rain; clearly her eponym. Her green eyes carefully regarded Gracie’s right hand. “He’s Blue.” Red thumbed her hand at her colleague. His features were dark. His hair very much not blue. Where was his eponym? Blue’s middle erred on the round side of things, but hard to tell how round with the amorphous gray poncho. He had perched a matching gray rainhat on top of his head, a little too small for his big dome. His expression played on the edge of anxiety. He was trying, but couldn’t quite conceal something he didn’t like. Maybe Gracie. Maybe Red. Maybe he didn’t like matching outfits.

“Nice to meet you, folks. Thanks for checking in on me.” Gracie glanced over her shoulder again. Graff was gone. Maybe turned down the next street. She might still catch him. “I’ve got to get going.”

“Hold on now.” Red’s right hand swung a fraction toward her hip. She carried herself in a way few women did, each movement a subtle threat of violence. Also, maybe, the hope that someone might take that threat as an invitation. “We’re having a conversation here.”

Her father stood to Gracie’s right, mercifully quiet. Smoke reached out from him, wound its way around Gracie, and slithered between Blue and Red’s sneakered feet. “You’re with Graff?” Gracie said.

“Now that’s an interesting question. And he thought you were slow. You know, in the head.” Red pointed at Blue with her left hand. Her right, still poised by her hip. “I don’t know why you’re lost on this street today. And I don’t know who Graff is. But don’t find yourself wandering after him again.”

“You work for CellDrive?” Gracie kept her own right hand in the vicinity of her revolver. Not that it mattered much. She probably wasn’t going to outdraw Red. And certainly, not the both of them. 

Red smirked and looked up at Blue. He frowned and looked off into some middle distance. “Who?” Red said. They didn’t work for CellDrive. This was something new. New obstacles. New leads. Gracie wasn’t going to track down Graff today.

“Not fair teaming up on me, you two,” Gracie said.

Red frowned. “Yeah, I don’t like it either. They think I need a chaperon.”

“Do you?” Gracie said.

Red shook her head. “Nope.”

Blue nodded his head, still looking off into the distance, and whispered, “Yes.”

Gracie took a step back. “Well, maybe next time you leave Blue at home.”

Red shrugged. Blue turned his eyes back on Gracie. “I’m here to keep her in check. You know what that means?”

“She’s a couple roses short of a dozen?” Gracie said.

A crease formed on Blue’s forehead. “Red is Muy peligroso.” He shuffled his anxious feet. “She comes for you, they won’t send me to keep her in check. Para todo hay remedio, sino para la muerte.”

“Death is the remedy?” Gracie said.

“Yes,” Blue said. “You get the drift.”

“I think I found the way. My truck’s over there.” Gracie pointed behind Red and Blue. “I’ll be seeing you.” Gracie hopped off the curb and crossed the street. She moved at an angle, to keep an eye on them.

Her father followed, smoke billowing behind him. “That was terrifying,” he said.

And it was. Her heart pounded. How long had it been doing that? Gracie put distance between them as quickly as she could without breaking into a jog. Her ears perked, expecting some parting words from Red. But the two of them stood on the sidewalk in their gray ponchos and silently watched Gracie go. They stood there while she got back in her truck. They were still standing there when she pulled down another street, and they disappeared from the rearview mirror. 

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